Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fake Words (Corporate Edition)

  • Exxonerate: to display excessive leniency towards companies charged with environmental pollution.
  • Michelinzer Torte: a fruit tart with a strange, rubbery consistency.
  • Aviscerate: to total one's rental car; alternatively, to steal the engine out of a parked rental car.
  • Benettoner: multi-hued all-purpose toner for color copiers.
  • Go for a Halliburton: to absquatulate, to pull a disappearing act after embezzling huge sums of money.
  • Firestonewalling: to block an opponent's passage by erecting a barrier of old tires; the burning of tires as a form of civil disobedience during a gay rights demonstration.
  • Cingularity: a communications black hole.
  • Chrysleriana: Schumann's recently discovered "Detroit suite" for piano.
  • Heinekenning: a characteristic feature of 19th century German romantic poetry. Example: Hopfenblut, or "hop's blood", meaning "beer".
  • Dijon Vu: the feeling you've tasted this mustard before. (I cannot take credit for this, alas)

and a few other, non-corporate, terms -

  • Feefifobia: fear of giants.
  • Fobia: fear of misspeled words.
  • Bentholaryngomania: an obsession with the movie "Deep Throat".
  • Ichthyodigitalophagist: an eater of fish fingers.
  • Sherpes: a viral infection endemic to the Himalayas.
  • Blandau: An undistinguished four-wheeled carriage; the antithesis of the hansom cab. Not quite as passive-aggressive as the sulky.
  • Warmageddon: the likely result of uncontrolled climate change.


Ever heard of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the famous photographer who perished prematurely in a terrible accident while on assignment for "Combustibles" magazine?

Or did she? In fact, mountweazel was an infamous "fake" entry in an edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia, inserted as a deliberate trap to catch potential lexicological plagiarists. The name has since become synonymous with any similar trap, generally a fake word or name devised by reference-book editors to trap plagiarists. In the world of cartography, it is not uncommon to invent non-existent streets, or to place non-existent curves in existing streets, with the same purpose in mind.

Another recent example in the world of dictionaries is the "word" esquivalience. From Wikipedia:

Esquivalience, according to the August 29, 2005 New Yorker article "Ink: Not a Word" by Henry Alford, is a fictitious entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), which was designed and included to protect copyright of the publication. The word was invented by Christine Lindberg, one of the editors of the NOAD. It was leaked that the dictionary had put in a fake word in the letter "e" and Alford set out to find the word. It was discovered after review of a short list by several experts. When the editor, Erin McKean, was contacted she admitted that it was indeed a fake word and had been in since the first edition, in order to protect the copyright of the CD-ROM edition.

The word is defined as "the wilful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."

Other examples, in similar vein, include the delightful (but completely imaginary) food items: funistrada, buttered ermal, and braised trake.

Funistrada is an imaginary food name invented by the U.S. armed forces to see if participants of written food surveys were paying attention or just answering randomly. In a 1974 survey respondents ranked funistrada higher than eggplant, instant coffee, apricot pie, harvard beets, canned lima beans, grilled bologna, and cranberry juice. Two other imaginary foods fared less well - buttered ermal and braised trake.

A more dangerous food item is the infamous Swedish lemon angel, whose recipe calls for combining lemon juice and baking soda; if attempted, the result is the same as making a vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano.

Maybe it would be best just to stick to lamb for Easter lunch.

More about this subject can be found under the Wikipedia article on fictitious entries:

The Hazards of Reading Hamlet

From "The New York Times", December 27th, 1907:

POURED LEAD INTO HIS EAR.; Belief Is That Conkling Had Been Reading "Hamlet."
Special to The New York Times.

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y., Dec. 26. -- James H. Conkling, a prominent business man of this city, is in a critical condition in Thrall Hospital, suffering from the effects of molten lead, which, it is believed, he himself poured into his right ear with suicidal intent.

Full story here, in pdf format

Book Review : How to Live (Henry Alford)

Third in a series of three reviews of books which address some of the issues associated with aging.

How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

A more accurate title for this book would be "Growing Old Gracefully", as it's obvious that the question Alford is really interested in is "How should we come to terms with our own mortality?" He decides the best way to find out is to ask a bunch of elderly people, then try to distil key life lessons from the resulting conversations. Framing this process as a “search for wisdom” doesn't help particularly, and occasionally causes him to get sidetracked into some fairly unproductive academic discussions. It’s not surprising that encouraging people to talk about their own lives works far better than asking them about “wisdom” in the abstract, an approach which, predictably, yields mostly just bland generalities.

As a general rule, his success is inversely proportional to the fame of the interviewee. Conversations with Harold Bloom* and Edward Albee lead to unhelpful pseudo-profundities like “wisdom is a perfection that can either absorb or destroy us”, and pointless exchanges about the dictionary definition of “wisdom”. A series of meetings with actress Sylvia Miles reveal little more than her apparently bottomless self-infatuation. The most interesting thing that is gleaned from self-styled guru Ram Dass’s pontification on “wisdom” and “spirituality” is his admission that he doesn’t plan to attend his own brother’s funeral. This, quite rightly, bothers Alford, though he later suggests that Dass is redeemed by the calm acceptance he displays in the aftermath of a disabling stroke. It’s unclear whether this reflects Alford’s innate generosity of spirit, or an unwillingness to admit to himself how worthless his pilgrimage to meet with Dass has been. Sandra Tsing Loh has already written more about her eccentric father than anyone might possibly want to know, so Alford’s decision to include further anecdotes about Mr Loh’s dumpster-diving and public urination is baffling.

* I should add that the most memorable response Alford elicits, in an otherwise fairly ho-hum interview with Bloom, is in answer to the simple question “What have you gained with age?” Bloom: “A healthier respect and affection for my wife than I used to have...” (smiles) “Next May will be our fiftieth anniversary”. Somehow that moment of sweetness makes one forgive Professor Bloom many of his more pompous utterances over the years.

Fortunately for Alford, and for the reader, his conversations with less well-known senior citizens are more rewarding. The best chapters of this book are those in which Alford describes meetings with ‘ordinary’ senior citizens: Charlotte Prozan, a San Francisco psychotherapist he met on a cruise organized by The Nation; Althea Washington, a 75-year old retired schoolteacher who lost her husband and her house in Hurricane Katrina; Setsuko Nishi, 86-year old professor emerita of sociology at Brooklyn College and CUNY; Doris Haddock (aka Granny D), who staged a 3000-mile walk across America in support of campaign finance reform back in 1999, when she was still a spry octogenarian.

Most affecting of all are the author’s conversations with his own mother and stepfather. In what comes as an obvious shock, shortly after he interviews each of them, his mother (aged 79 at the time) asks for a divorce. Alford’s account of the events that follow, and the reverberations throughout the family, is remarkable for his ability to navigate obviously treacherous emotional territory without ever becoming exploitative or judgemental. In all of his writing, one senses that Alford is fundamentally a true mensch, a really decent guy. It’s part of what makes his work so enjoyable, and it really serves him well here. His writing about his family is funny and moving (never exploitative: David Sedaris, please take note), and is one of the best parts of this book.

Interspersed among the conversations are the results of Alford’s auxiliary research – what various philosophers have to say about wisdom, what other cultures have to offer on the subject. There is also a (desultory) consideration of deathbed confessions and famous last words as possible sources of insight. These are, at best, intermittently amusing.

This book is a departure from Alford’s previous work, the two collections “Big Kiss” and “Municipal Bondage”, humorous essays reminiscent of, and often much funnier than, the work of David Rakoff and David Sedaris. Though his choice of subject here doesn’t afford him the chance to be as hilariously funny as he was in the earlier books, he is witty and engaging throughout. The interviews with Bloom, Dass, and Albee would have benefited from a little less deference: one gets the sense that Alford was holding his natural snark in check. “How to Live” doesn’t quite have the mischievous exuberance that made “Municipal Bondage” such a joy to read, but it does have compensating virtues of it own, particularly the interviews with ‘ordinary seniors’ and Alford’s extremely moving writing about his own family.

I had expected Henry Alford to be charming. Who knew he could be wise as well?

****: Four stars out of a possible five.

Book Review : Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

David Lodge is not a flashy writer, but he is an extremely good one. Superficially, his predilection for working the same, relatively narrow, ground (he is a master of the academic novel) might seem constricting. But each of his novels delivers fresh insights, with his signature blend of intelligence, wit, and genuine affection for his characters.

"Deaf Sentence" is no exception. Although it's not as hilariously funny as some of his earlier books, it is - like all of his work - compulsively readable, and ultimately very moving, in an understated kind of way. Lodge's description of the various indignities that deafness brings is hilariously funny and so utterly convincing that you know it has to be based on first-hand experience. There is far more wisdom about aging in this unassuming story by Lodge than, for example, in Julian Barnes's recent, migraine-inducing, bloviation about his own mortality.

When I think of the trio of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, and David Lodge (I try to think of Christoper Hitchens as little as possible), restaurant analogies come to mind. Amis is the risk-taking molecular gastronomist, brashly confident of his own genius, and hey - if the diners don't always appreciate the flashiness, that’s not his problem. To his credit, when he’s on target, he can be sublime. But the brilliance is hit-or-miss. Barnes is closer to Amis than he might care to admit, thought perhaps not writ quite so large. In general, the quality of his work doesn’t fluctuate quite as much, but he is still capable of succumbing to navel-gazing, and cleverness (or perhaps his consciousness of his own cleverness) is definitely his Achilles heel. You’ll be served some extraordinary meals chez Barnes, but there will be an occasional inedible mess. At the risk of beating this analogy to death, David Lodge, perhaps at the cost of never reaching the Olympian heights attained sporadically by the others, never disappoints, reliably serving hearty nourishing comfort food that leaves the reader satisfied and looking forward to the next visit.

That might sound like damning with faint praise, but is actually meant as the highest compliment. I can think of very few novelists working today who are consistently such a delight to read. He joins a very short list of authors (Margaret Drabble in early and mid-career, Anne Tyler) whose work is reliably intelligent, thought-provoking and interesting without being flashy. Such craftsmanship is rare and not something one should take for granted. I look forward to each new novel by Lodge, and thus far have never been disappointed.

****: Four stars out of a possible five.

Book Review : Nothing to be Afraid Of (Julian Barnes)


In this massive eructation of self-indulgent, rambling, repetitive prose, Julian Barnes contemplates his mortality. At considerable, punishing, length. Where does it get him? To paraphrase another writer: And the end of all his exploring is to arrive where he began. Despite the purgatorial length of this hideous hairball of a book, he never really arrives at any conclusion. The reader isn't even offered the courtesy of a chapter break. The book just meanders on with no evident direction until (mercifully) it finally just peters out.

"But surely", I hear you ask, "this is Julian Barnes, a man of such wit and erudition, he cannot fail to be delightful company along the way".

That’s what I thought, gentle reader, but I was mistaken. I believe the relevant phrase is epic fail. The biographical stuff is faintly interesting at best, and Barnes – obviously a very private man – is careful to avoid anything genuinely revealing about his personal life. Anecdotes about various friends and acquaintances, and their thoughts about death, are tediously pointless. They are rendered all the more irritating by Barnes’s referring to the people involved as ‘P’, ‘S’, ‘A’ etc., a device that should have been outlawed after the death of Kafka, and that lends the text all the crackling excitement of a proof from Euclid. Barnes's rehashing of what other writers have written about death is equally soporific.

This is a baffling and irritating book. There is no apparent reason for it to exist at all - if Mr Barnes has nothing to say to us, why not leave us in peace? Whatever made him feel impelled to torment us with these vacuous scribblings? Reading this book feels exactly like watching your favorite cat cough up a particularly dense, matted hairball. It takes forever, and you feel vicariously exhausted when it’s all over. I know that, in mediaeval times, magical healing properties were attributed to such animal hairballs, or bezoars. But the best that can be said for this one is that you won’t have to clean up the carpet afterwards.

Try Henry Alford’s infinitely more engaging “How to Live” instead.

*: One out of five possible stars.

So relieved this is over

No, not my stay in Madrid, which has fortunately got one more week to go.

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Yes, I know. What seemed like fun at the outset just ended up being kind of creepy. We live and learn.

Friday, April 10, 2009


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It was a cold, rainy Friday here in Madrid. The city is deserted. So what better occasion to stage another exciting test-off in the ongoing saga of "OPERATION BAKED GOODS"?

Three entrants were included in this experimental session, each purchased at the basement supermarket in El Corte Inglés, each in the 1.00€ to 1.40€ price bracket. Our three contestants are shown below:

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Larger, individual, photos may be found here , and as neighboring photos in the Flickr stream.

As always, strict safety measures were implemented during the testing session, with adequate fluid supplies at the ready to deal with any rapid-onset desiccation incidents:

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This foresight proved to be well-grounded during the testing of the magdalena valenciana, seen below

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Although the semi-enrobement in chocolate prevented the Romo "melindras choco" from reaching quite the same silica-gel desiccation levels as the vile magdalena valenciana, truth be told, they fared only marginally better. You wouldn't feed them to your mother-in-law.

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Remarkably, there was a clear winner:

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Yes, folks. Although the pastry chefs of Vienna, indeed of all of Northern Europe, still need not quake in their boots, the fact of the matter is that the "brazo trufa", or chocolate-truffle flavored Swiss roll, from the pasteleria of Angel Garro, was surprisingly tasty and - I never thought I would type these words in an edition of OBG - deliciously MOIST.

So it emerges as the clear winner.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs!

Observe that fine sentence in the title of this post. Notice anything in particular? Yes -- it's a pangram. It contains all twenty-six letters in the standard English alphabet.

Not all languages are as profligate with letters. As is well-known, the Hawaiian language gets by using only 12 letters of the Roman alphabet: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w, sometimes augmented by the symbol ʻ, to denote a glottal stop.

There is not, to my knowledge, any particular shortage of letters in the alphabets of the different Scandinavian languages. Nonetheless, they sometimes appear to demonstrate a distinct element of parsimony, as far as letters are concerned. Particularly where sheep are involved, if the following examples are anything to go by:

Take this Swedish sentence, for instance:

Far, Får får får? Nej, inte får får får, får får lamm.
Father, do sheep have sheep? No, sheep don't have sheep, sheep have lambs.

But the Swedes have nothing on Icelandic speakers as far as not wasting letters is concerned. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking that the following "sentence" was the result of some unfortunate keyboard malfunction, or possible feline intervention.

Ái á Á, á á í á.

But, no! It appears that this actually means something (again, some kind of intrafamilial conversation about sheep). My sources inform me that it conveys the following vital information:

Grandfather from "Á" farm has a sheep in a river.

It hardly seems credible. But this is not an April 1st posting.

It would be remiss of me to finish this post without linking to the infamous Onion "vowel drop" article:

The odd thing is, despite The Onion's claim at the bottom of the link above, I found it impossible to find the original article on their site. Their search engine is for the birds, if it can't even find what is probably their single best-known (and best) article of all time.

Given the state of the Icelandic economy, it seems that they might profit from some kind of deal with one of the Balkan countries.

Change One Letter : Liturgical Edition

Gloria in excelsis feo*:
Talk about ugly! Betty has nothing on Gloria.

Fixit, Dominus:
In this hilarious new NBC sitcom, Jesus needs all his carpentry skills, when he takes a job as super in the apartment building on Melrose Place.

The Apostles' Screed.

Stab at Mater:
The prequel to "Psycho".

A Mighty Fortress is our Bod:
A new chain of fitness centers opens in the Bible Belt.

Neater my God to Thee:
A new housecleaning service opens in the Bible Belt.

Jesu, Joey of Man's Desiring:
An unfortunate typo in the score of a musical cantata gives rise to one of Australia's more bizarre marsupial-worshipping cults.

Tantum Eggo:
This new, low-cholesterol, egg substitute tastes so good it's almost sacramental.

Flux Aeterna:
Oops! Looks like Heraclites has been "improving" the scriptures again.

Diets Irae:
An inside look at the infamous IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh internment facility.

Tub Admirum:
I really like your bathroom fixtures!

Nagnus Dei:
All that bleating is really starting to get on my nerves.

(*: Gloria is extremely ugly)

Stack Cats & Taco Cat

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Book Review : Don Quixote (Part I)

Quijote lookalike

RATING: ** (two stars, out of a possible five)

Let me start by saying that I really gave it my best shot. I can't think of another book that I've read as closely. Read it in Spanish AND in English. Even - to keep myself honest - tried summarizing as I went, in deathless doggerel ( QUIK QUIXOTE ). I've spent a month of my life with this book - it's been a mild obsession.

Why? Oh, I don't know. Can we ever satisfactorily explain why we choose to give ourselves over to any specific whim? I'm here, in Madrid. I'm studying Spanish at a school that's called "Don Quijote". The time just seemed right. And I had a strong feeling that it was going to be now or never.

But a coherent summary of my reaction eludes me, frankly. This book alternately amused me and bored me to tears. There are a couple of places where I laughed out loud. But mostly I just wanted it to be over. I wasn't about to quit. But it felt awfully like a penance, much of the time.

Some random observations, for which I am forced to resort to the dreaded list of bullet items:

1. The Spanish was often more fun to read than the English. Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries (down to the urban legend (?) of having died on the same day). But Spanish has changed considerably less in the intervening 400 years than English. There were enough archaic words that I did feel reading the translation was a necessary check, but it was surprisingly straightforward in Spanish, and - traduttori, tradittori - one felt closer to the original story. So I definitely enjoyed that aspect of reading the book - it felt like a real confirmation that all the Spanish classes have paid off.

2. I have a good general understanding of the book's place in literary history, and so was willing to cut it some slack - that is to say, not to judge it as one would a modern novel. That said, I still can't avoid saying that I found it enormously clunky. The first couple of hundred pages were annoyingly episodic and formulaic - addled Don meets (a)windmills (b)yokels (c)sheep (d)funeral mourners - take your pick - is confused, through a hilarious misunderstanding (but see point 5 below) attacks them, gets the worst of the dustup, and ends in the ditch.

3. Things improved a little in the second half (of Book I), when some of the protagonists other than Don and Sancho start to appear on a recurring basis. But don't look for in-depth characterization, or much character development to speak of. Cervantes is no Shakespeare.
OK. Let me repeat that for the benefit of each and every one of my Spanish teachers, though I love them dearly. People - you are completely freaking delusional! CERVANTES IS NO SHAKESPEARE. When you make this comparison, you just make me want to resort to actual physical violence. I've read Shakespeare and, dudes, CERVANTES IS NO FREAKING SHAKESPEARE. There's more subtlety, insight, and depth of understanding of human nature in almost any single Shakespeare play (OK, "Titus Andronicus" is a little weird, but there are still over thirty to choose from) than in this entire first volume. Not to mention a superabundance of the most gorgeous language, though - to be fair - I can't quite judge Cervantes on this score.

4. When the plot isn't being all episodic, it's not really any great shakes either. Mick is altogether too heavy-handed with the AMAZING COINCIDENCE method of plot resolution. Man, you wouldn't believe who all happens to mosey on by the same remote Manchegan inn, just in time to tie up a dangling plot thread. I dunno. It all seems more than a little -- lazy.
Though I guess (and I feel like I'm really bending over backwards to give Mick the benefit of the doubt here - why is that - in retroactive justification of the time I invested reading this damned book?) maybe I'm applying modern criteria and expectations here. It's not as if all of Shakespeare's plots were entirely plausible either.

5. Humor. Ah, yes. One of literature's great comic masterpieces. Well, excuse me, if I fail to climb on this particular bandwagon. I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. Let's be quite clear - the humor, such as it is, is almost exclusively slapstick of the broadest kind. If you like watching circus clowns do pratfalls, or if your dream television weekend is a Three Stooges marathon, then maybe you´ll laugh like a drain. But if you don't really find slapstick all that hilarious, or don't take vicarious pleasure in taunting and jeering at a deranged person, you will, as I did, wonder what all the fuss is about. (Yes: I acknowledge that there is some wit in the book's initial premise - a person addled by too much book-reading. But lemme tellya, it gets old awful quick. It really does).
One goodreads reviewer tells us, with no apparent irony, that this is the funniest book he has ever read in his life. A statement that can only be literally true if he is a shut-in with no access to a library.

6. And on the subject of those ratings by other goodreads reviewers. De gustibus non disputandum est (i.e. diff'rent strokes..) and all that good stuff. But really, folks, I'm having a hard time swallowing it. An average rating of 4.69? 102 5-star ratings?
Might it not be possible, just faintly possible, that we have a slight case of what one might call "classic intimidation" going on? The (perhaps unconscious) fear that people may think less of one for not appreciating one of the world's designated literary classics? Did all these apparently rabid Quixote enthusiasts - and how can I put this delicately - ACTUALLY READ THE WHOLE BOOK? All of it, without cheating? All those pastoral poems by the love-besotted shepherds? The entire soporific "Tale of Foolish Curiosity"?
The limited empirical data available suggest that maybe close attention was not paid - a mere 9.9% of respondents chose the correct answer to the goodreads quiz question about the "fulling hammers".
Just sayin'. I has my doubts.

7. Because, here's the thing. Large swaths of this book are intrinsically unreadable. No, I mean it. You read a page. Your eyes glaze over. You try it again. Same phenomenon. Cycle and repeat.
I humbly submit that the stuff in which Cervantes is engaged in direct spoofing of the knight-errant genre - all the stuff about Amadis of Gaul, the Don's argument with the Canon, the priest's adjudication of the various volumes in the Don's library, not to mention the interminable pastoral interludes with lovelorn shepherds and damsels dressed as shepherdesses, could be considered interesting only by the most desperate of graduate students in need of a dissertation topic. For anyone not engaged in abstruse academic investigation it's a freaking snoozefest.

Did I enjoy "Don Quixote, Book I"? Only very sporadically. Do I consider it one of the world's great books? Absolutely not. Will I read Book II? Oddly enough, probably yes.

But not this trip. And probably not this year. Let the Don lie slumbering back home in La Mancha. Myself, I hope to travel to Chile in July, and Argentina in August. I think that other, more appealing, opportunities will arise to extend my knowledge of literature in Spanish.

So there you have it. Sorry. I told you that I probably wouldn't manage an entirely coherent review.


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I have to confess. This was a purely curbside investigation. Nothing whatsoever about the items shown in this picture convinced me that it was worth shelling out 1.20€ for an actual taste test. The desiccant properties of the mille-feuille part are evident, and even the most enormous glob of unappetizing Crisco (or whatever the HELL that stuff is) is not going to be enough to compensate.

Yes, dear readers. I give this a failing grade, without even trying it. So sue me! You can hardly expect OBG operatives to put our personal health at risk just to satisfy your prurient curiosity.

Don't forget to tune in for a special EASTER update from the OBG team!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Retratos de un Lobezno (Portraits of a Wolverine)

Portraits of Wolverine

The Van Gogh is clearly the best.

In the interests of fairness in media reporting, and because Hugh Jackman is messing up things for anyone interested in finding a picture of an actual wolverine on the internet, here is a link to such a picture:

Actual Wolverine Picture

He looks much cuter and less vicious than I had imagined.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Breakfast at the Rodilla Café

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An excellent value at only 2.20€ (slightly under $3) for the café con leche and two of those cute little snail pastries, or caracolas minis. The delightful appearance of this picture is in no small measure due to the expert food wrangling assistance provided by Paddy, pictured below.

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Even though I said I wouldn't post this picture of PB, it came out so nicely that I couldn't resist. Even as I type this, she is winging her way back to DC; I hope her journey was safe and stress-free.

I miss her already.

QQ 27 - 36

Chapter 27.

So priest and barber, squire and steed
Head out to save their friend in need
With subterfuge, and some cross-dressing.
Head out to where Don's still professing
His love for Dulz, and for the knightlife,
(Myself, I'd settle for a quiet life.)
They meet Cardenio (from before,
his tale's in Chapter 24).

Chapter 28.

Next things get, if not quite dramatic,
At least a bit soap operatic.
I'll simplify, to keep things short,
Though brevity is not Mick's forte.
Forgive me if I stoop to flashback
(I hope you won't be wanting cash back).

Card loved Lucy, thought he'd wed her.
Ferd saw Lucy, thought he'd bed her.
Lucy, distraught, seemed to choose bird in hand,
When she agreed to marry Ferdinand.
Card was distressed, went off his head.
Wished Ferdinand and Lucy dead.
Fled to mountains, rent his garments.
Hung out with sheep, was prey to varmints.

Meanwhile, poor Dot (that's Ferdy's ex),
Is fugitive too, cause back then sex,
Though practiced slyly, with abandon,
Was sanctioned only with a band on.
Needless to say, she's mad at Ferdy,
A trait she shares with our friend Cardy.

Chapter 29

Barber and priest meet Card and Dot.
Decide to change and improve plot
To rescue Don. With fair Dot's succor
Hatch a new plan designed to sucker
Don into helping our fair damsel.
No need for priest to dress like mademoiselle;
They've Dot for that. Plan works a treat.
Don falls for story -- very neat.

Chapter 30.

Next up in remote mountain pass
They find the thief who stole squire's ass.
Sancho is happy to see Dapple.
Even rewards him with an apple.

Chapter 31.

So priest and barber, squire and knight,
and Card and Dot, travel by night
Until at last they reach the inn.
There's rooms for all. They're in like Flynn!

Chapters 32 - 34.

They eat. They drink. Don goes to bed.
To rest his sleepy knightly head.
The others read a tale so boring
I can't sum up. It had me snoring.

I'm sorry. I can't. It's just too insanely boring.
Please don't make me.

Chapter 35.

In Don's bedroom, all hell breaks out;
They go to see what it's about.
Find Don in posture of defiance;
He thinks he's being attacked by giants.
Lays waste with sword, starts breaking things;
Before long, punctures inn's wineskins.
Red wine pours out -- a crimson flood,
The Don mistakes it for giants' blood.
They praise and calm befuddled knight
And try to settle in for the night.

Chapter 36.

But someone's heard a-knocking outside -
Looks like a nobleman. And his bride?
Well, golly gee! It's Ferd! And Lucy!
Looks like our story's getting juicy!

Remember Ferdy? (he's Dot's ex,
Who dumped her after having thex).
Remember Luce? (Cardenio's flame)
Dressed like a nun! So what's the game?

What happens next? I'll make it quick.
Spare you all of Mick's slick shtick.

Ferdy, who's mistreated both wenches,
Repents, resolves to be a mensch, as
Befits his noble rank and station.
Both pairs unite. Much jubilation!
Card and Lucy get quite sappy.
Dot and Ferdy -- just as happy.

I'll have the fish, please.

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Two streets who really should get together more often.

Unfortunately, they cross paths only in my imagination. And now, perhaps, in yours as well.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Book Review : King Lear

This is where Shakespeare takes off the gloves. He brings us right to the edge of the abyss, then kicks us over that edge. "King Lear" is the most devastating by far of the Shakespeare tragedies -- this is a play which leaves the reader shattered as the curtain falls.

The play has a kind of primal power, which I find hard to explain. The plot is fairly typically Shakespeare, perhaps a little more complicated than usual, mixing elements taken from legend and from the historical record. At the outset, Lear is a narcissistic, bullying despot. His two older daughters, Regan and Goneril, are a couple of bad seed cougars, both of whom lust after Edmund, an equally amoral hyena. Their goody-two-shoes sister Cordelia behaves with such one-note pointless stubbornness, it almost seems like she's not playing with a full deck. Over in the Gloucester household, Edmund (the bastard hyena) is plotting against both his brother Edgar and his father. Lear’s court is filled with lickspittle sycophants. Only two people have the guts to speak truth to power, and one of them wears the costume of a Fool. There's a nasty storm brewing on the heath.

Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Characters in “King Lear” pay dearly for their weaknesses. Gloucester is blinded in order that he might see, but is denied any lasting happiness; after reconciling with Edgar, he dies. Lear will be driven insane before he finally learns to empathize with the poor and the meek. We watch him return from the brink of madness only to discover that’s not enough. Before the curtain falls, Shakespeare gives us what is arguably the most brutal scene in his entire work.

Enter Lear with Cordelia (dead) in his arms –

Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heavens vault should crack. She’s gone forever.

Even if, like me, you find Cordelia a saccharine, two-dimensional character*, this scene is shattering. Two pages later, after learning that his fool has hanged himself, Lear dies, broken-hearted. Edgar, Kent and Albany – literally the only characters still standing – are left to bury the dead and move on, as best they can.

Why do I find this the most affecting of Shakespeare’s plays? (I’ve seen seven different stage productions**, and two on TV, and it only gets more powerful upon repeated exposure.) I can’t really pin it down – it’s a combination of various elements. The characters are idiosyncratic, fully realised, and their behavior is highly relatable, so the play is convincing at the level of the individual protagonists. But the fable-like nature of the opening scene also confers a kind of universal quality to its message, and the themes explored within the play – abuse of power, relationships within families, responsibilities of parents and children, the breakdown of the natural order and its consequences, the human capacity for enormous cruelty – are no less relevant today than in Shakespeare’s time. The skillfully constructed parallel plotting of the Lear and Gloucester arcs adds to the power of the story, the breakdown in natural human behavior is further accentuated by the raw fury of the elements during the storm scenes, where Nature echoes Lear’s fury.

Ultimately, there’s no getting away from the uncompromising bleakness of the play’s message. In Gloucester’s words – “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”. The nihilism of “King Lear” has always disturbed audiences, and it was common during the 18th and 19th centuries to stage an altered version, in which Cordelia was allowed to live, implying a more upbeat view of human nature. But, given what the events of the last century demonstrate about mankind’s vicious capacity for self-destruction, one has to think that Shakespeare got it right first time. As usual.

*: the character that Cordelia most reminds me of is the slave-girl, Liu, in Puccini’s “Turandot”. Neither is realised in any great depth, but each serves an important function in the way that their death effects a crucial change in one of the other protagonists.

**: including one particularly memorable performance in Mönchen-Gladbach, Germany, where Regan and Goneril were decked out like biker chicks and roared on stage riding what appeared to be Harleys.

More Iberian Doggerel

My good friend Joaquin in Bilbao
His artistic taste is lowbrao
Living next to the Guggenheim
Is making him meschuggene, I'm
Completely open to suggestion on hao
to finish this particular rhyme with grace and economy.